Mark Shim

Vanguard Vibrations: Sharing the Air*

"You do know that sound is air, right?" remarked pianist-composer Vijay Iyer, thanking an exuberant audience for sharing the room, space, and air with his tremendous band on Thursday night. At New York's historic Village Vanguard, Iyer led his sextet in a tour-de-force performance that was at turns visceral, emotive, dramatic, nuanced, jarring, delicate, and exhilarating. While the music is complex, I find it corporeal rather than cerebral. This music is funky -- it's vibrant, groovy, and full of feeling, a full-body experience.

Segueing from piece to piece with only one pause during the set, Vijay kept his bandmates on their toes -- one could see them rifling through stacks of sheet music as each new song began. As he is wont to do, Iyer improvises sets in the manner that he improvises at the piano: unpredictably, sometimes with sudden shifts of gear and dynamics, other times with gradual dynamic builds or textural decays that seem to stretch the listener's perception of elapsed time.

I attended the late set, which included many themes from Vijay's excellent ECM album, "Far From Over," featuring this very band, with one notable exception. In place of the stellar percussionist/composer Tyshawn Sorey** was Jeremy Dutton, who very ably filled the role of rhythmic instigator and textural fire-starter. He played with a ferocity and commitment to groove that was unshakeable throughout the many rhythmic complexities of Iyer's music. Dutton's explosive use of the floor tom reminded me of certain passages Sorey plays on the album, and his way of orchestrating around the kit makes him a strong fit for this music.

Graham Haynes was a minimalist sound-sculptor on cornet and electronics, a fantastic foil to the more sheets-of-sound pyrotechnics of saxophonists Steve Lehman and Mark Shim. One solo in particular found him playing very few notes and manipulating the envelope and decay of each sound with his effects rig, the electronics as crucial to the improvisation as the horn. Bassist and longtime Iyer collaborator Stephan Crump was lyrical and steady, the heartbeat of a band in which every player is required to assume a drummer-like role. Indeed, one of my favorite elements of Iyer's sextet is the way in which the imaginary lines between horns and rhythm section are dissolved and roles inverted. For example, in one piece, Lehman's alto doubles an accompaniment figure by Iyer, which in turn is an integral part of the drum groove; in another, the horns accompany the rhythm section's excursions with punctuated single-note figures.

Since I started listening to Iyer as a high schooler, I've been intrigued with his unique pianistic vocabulary and use of extreme high and low registers on the instrument. Now, what perhaps impresses me most by his piano playing is how his range of timbres and colors seems to keep expanding and deepening. There are moments on "Far From Over" where Iyer will get an incredible after-ring to "glow" on a note in the high register of the piano; I assumed this was due to the fine piano, studio, and production techniques of ECM's venerable Manfred Eicher. But no - Vijay did it live, as they say, creating this otherworldly light on some unspeakably delicate tones towards the top of the piano, often while sustaining a dyad or simple chord beneath. 

Highlights of the set included "Down to the Wire," one of my favorites from the album, during which a low simmer develops into a steady boil, and ultimately erupts in a fury of simultaneous improvisations from the entire band. Another standout was Iyer's solo rendition of Billy Strayhorn's heartbreakingly beautiful "Blood Count," again exhibiting some of those otherworldly "glow tones" in the upper register of the piano. As Vijay remarked to me afterward, he felt that the high-octane, high-decibel energy had been calling for a bit of cool-out, and his solo meditation on one of jazz's great melodies provided just that.

The Vijay Iyer Sextet will be at the Vanguard through Sunday evening, and I highly encourage all fans of dramatic, grooving, high-energy music to give them a listen. The power and spontaneity of their music comes across well on recording, but truly comes alive when witnessed in person.

*Though I was tempted to title this post "Vijay's Vivacious Village Vanguard Vibrations," my editor (read: girlfriend) gently insisted that I save the dad-jokes for a later decade.

**Full disclosure: I had the great fortune of studying with both Vijay Iyer and Tyshawn Sorey at the Banff Centre in August of 2016.